IF YOU GO
What: The North Mississippi Allstars, in concert at the Waterfont Blues Festival
When: 6:45 p.m. July 6.
Where: Miller Stage, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, S.W. Naito Parkway, Portland.
Cost: $10 plus two cans of food suggested donation.
Luther Dickinson knew what he wanted to do with his life when he was just a little boy. Decades later, he’s doing it, night after night.
“Even when I was a little, little kid, I knew I wanted to be a guitar player,” he said. “I wasn’t so naturally talented at it. But I loved it and I wanted to do it.”
The self-effacing Dickinson is, in fact, talented at playing guitar, so much so that his solo acoustic album “Hambone’s Meditation” got a Grammy nomination for best folk album.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Dickinson said of the nomination. “I was so honored. It was for such a little record, an instrumental acoustic record. We went to the Grammy ceremonies. I didn’t win, but we had a great time.”
“We” is the North Mississippi Allstars, the three-piece band anchored by Luther and his brother Cody, who plays drums. The brothers have been making music together all their lives.
The son of Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson, Luther doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t surrounded by music and didn’t want to be playing it himself.
When they were kids, Luther and Cody started making some loud, he says, horrible, punk rock noise. But the brothers were serious about it. That was enough to get Jim involved.
“When he saw I loved it so much, and Cody was so naturally talented, he started helping us,” Dickinson said. “My dad was into the creative process, whether it was writing songs, painting pictures, playing guitar. Once we started writing songs, that’s when he started to take it, take us, seriously.”
While the young Dickinsons played punk rock in bands like DDT, they were soaking up all kinds of music, some taught to them by their father, some being played in the juke joints scattered across northern Mississippi.
“At first we were playing experimental punk rock ’n’ roll,” Dickinson said. “We played roots music with Dad, but we were doing our own thing and making crazy noise. Then in the ’90s, I got exposed to the hill country blues scene — R.L. (Burnside), Otha Turner, Junior (Kimbrough) and of course Fred McDowell — that’s when it rolled over for me. As soon as we started playing traditional music on our own, that’s when things started to turn over for me. We’re still a rock ’n’ roll band, but heavily rooted.”
That was in 1996, when the Dickinson brothers started North Mississippi Allstars. Since then, the North Mississippi Allstars have released a dozen records (including live releases and compilations), garnered three Grammy nominations and developed a following that extends around the globe.
One of the keys to the Allstars, Dickinson said, is the communication and connection between the siblings.
“We’re very different,” he said. “We have very different takes and styles and aesthetics and different ideas about what it’s all about. But we complement each other very well. We’ve been a four-piece, five-piece and down to a duo. When you play with your brother, you always can make the gig. You know how to read each other and stumble down the path. That’s how we have to do it. If we try to plan things out, that’s when we mess everything up.”
One recent gig was fronting the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in late January. The orchestra played North Mississippi Allstar songs while the brothers wailed away in front of the strings, horns and percussion.
“That was amazing,” Dickinson said. “It was a revelation. You start playing your song and you hear that sound coming up behind you. It was really inspiring. I’d like to do more of that.”
Constantly working, Luther released three records last year — one with the South Memphis String Band; one with The Wandering, a five-piece folk band; and “Hambone’s Meditation.”
He’s been on the road constantly, with the Allstars, with the South Memphis band, with British bluesman Ian Siegal & the Mississippi Mudbloods — and, in 2011, he and Cody opened for Robert Plant.
Late last year, the Dickinsons even managed to get into their Zebra Ranch studio, just over the Mississippi border south of Memphis, to make a new Allstars record.
“We recorded this winter,” he said. “I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag yet. But it’s nasty, man. I love it. I think our fans are going to love it too.”
That fun has continued throughout Dickinson’s life, starting from when he was a child guitarist. Now, he says he’s glad he started early.
“I think it’s been an advantage for me,” he said. “I’ve been able to learn things early and have experience that most guys never get.
I’m just glad to be working in show business these days,” Dickinson said. “I just try and stay focused on music and family. That’s my life and I love it.”